The curse of an old editor’s blue-pencil syndrome

Posted Nov. 12, 2010, at 7:13 p.m.

Old habits die hard. Like many a former ink-stained wretch who sits down to read the morning newspaper for pleasure these days, I find myself automatically shifting into dutiful editor mode the moment I spread the paper on the coffee table before me.

Some would call it nitpicking, which my dictionary defines as “trivial, detailed and often unjustified criticism.” I call it old editor’s blue-pencil syndrome, lower case, because it has yet to be authenticated by the New England Journal of Medicine. Although it can be an amusing diversion, by whatever name, it can also be a curse at times for the unanswered questions it can spawn.

An item on a sports page of the Wednesday morning newspaper reported that temperamental race car driver Kyle Busch had been fined $25,000 by NASCAR and placed on probation for directing an obscene gesture at a NASCAR official who had penalized him during last Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.

“Busch was penalized for speeding at Texas and called into the pits to serve a one-lap penalty. While sitting in his car, he held up his middle finger toward the NASCAR official standing in front of his Toyota,” the story reported.

Not being a huge fan of watching race cars zip around a racetrack for hours on end, I freely admit to ignorance of the finer points of the lashup. But getting bagged and tagged for speeding on a racetrack? Really? Perhaps Busch was speeding on a caution lap, or on his way into pit row — practices which presumably would be frowned upon in the racing business. The story didn’t say.

But surely he could not have been collared for speeding under a green flag out among the other speeders on the track — each hell-bent on getting to the finish line first. Wouldn’t that be akin to charging a boxer in the ring with assault for nailing his opponent with a monumental left hook to the jaw? Or charging a baseball player with grand theft for stealing second base?

What we have here is a failure to communicate, as my old Army drill sergeant was fond of saying. Perhaps an explanation of Busch’s speeding charge was not offered by the wire service reporter. Or maybe it was excised from the story by a harried editor attempting to stuff 5 column inches of story into a 3-inch hole. Been there, done that, many a time. And not always with great success, either, I must confess.

Like many newspaper readers I have heard from over the years, I often have to read a paragraph more than once to catch the writer’s intent. A case in point is a wire service story out of Nashua, N.H., concerning evidence that had been introduced in the trial of a man accused of murder.

In a lengthy lead paragraph, the story reported that the evidence “included a sweatshirt that described him as ‘awesome’ and the wallet of the woman’s husband.” I’m guessing that although the printing on the man’s sweatshirt may have described him as awesome, the artwork did not also portray him as the wallet of the woman’s husband. A simple comma after the word “awesome” in the news story — or divvying up the evidence between separate sentences — might have clarified things.

A news story that ran in the B Section of the Thursday newspaper reported that a Portland man had been sentenced to 22 months in federal prison for “illegal possession of unregistered pipe bombs.”

When I read that seemingly straightforward report, several nitpicking questions went begging for answers. How numb would a bomb maker have to be to ring up the law to ask about registering a pipe bomb he had just assembled, presumably for nefarious purposes, in his basement? Would he have to go down to the cop shop to fill out the city’s Pipe Bomb Registration form, in duplicate, or could he register the device over the phone? Would registering an illegal pipe bomb turn the weapon into a legal pipe bomb, the better to legally blow things up with, my dear? And so forth.

Such are the tricky thickets into which old editor’s blue-pencil syndrome can lead a man when he takes to reading between the lines of his newspaper under the guise of nobly waging war on ambiguity and other journalistic sins. Not that this is likely to rid him of the affliction anytime soon.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.

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